Bass Paradise On Champlain
Mount Cube in Orford is a popular hike for all kinds of backpackers. (Marty Basch photograph)
Darrin Schwenkbeck pulls a smallmouth bass from Lake Champlain near Plattsburgh, New York. (Kansas City Star - Brent Frazee)
Plattsburgh, n.y.— Darrin Schwenkbeck was holding 3 pounds of proof that Lake Champlain is a world-class smallmouth-bass fishery.
An impressive catch? Maybe to a lot of fishermen, but not to Schwenkbeck.
He knows there are bigger smallies to be caught on the giant lake on the New York-Vermont state line.
“I really thought that was going to be one of those big ones,” Schwenkbeck said as he admired his catch before plunking it back into the water. “My goal every time I fish at Champlain is to catch five smallmouths pushing 20 pounds.
“I know that sounds a little wild, but this lake is that good. I’ve done it before, and I know it still can be done.”
Moments earlier, Schwenkbeck had launched a long cast to the middle of a “flow-through” that linked one part of the lake to the other, and began slowly sliding a Carolina rig with a dark-green plastic bait across the rocky bottom.
When he felt a tap, he set the hook and watched as a bronze fish immediately shot to the surface and made an acrobatic leap.
The fish landed with a loud bellyflop, then sounded and pulled hard. But it was only a matter of time before Schwenkbeck had the big smallmouth in the boat.
“You saw how hard that fish fought,” said Schwenkbeck, who runs the Shipwreck Schwenk Fishing Adventures guide service out of his home in Keesville, N.Y. “Now imagine the fight a 5-pounder puts up.
“That’s why I love fishing for these smallmouths.”
Schwenkbeck is an expert at it. He started out guiding at Lake Erie for smallmouths, but he eventually was lured to the beauty of the Adirondack Mountains and Lake Champlain.
With a jagged mountain range looming in the distance, Champlain has the perfect mix of rocks and weeds that provide great habitat for smallmouths. And with plenty of forage, those fish often have the thick, muscular physique that makes them outstanding fighters.
But it’s not just the smallmouths. Champlain also has sections that produce excellent largemouth fishing, giving it one of the nation’s best one-two offerings.
It consistently is ranked among the nation’s best bass lakes by pro fishermen and fisheries biologists. In 2012, it was chosen the fifth best in the country in Bassmaster’s Top 100 rankings. It slipped to No. 16 in the 2013 rankings, but still maintained its national appeal.
For Schwenkbeck, a guide and former pro fisherman (he fished for two years on the BASS Elite Series tour), it’s an ideal place to call home.
He dropped off the national circuit when he had trouble finding sponsors, but he still fishes state and regional tournaments. And on Champlain, he often shines.
“I can’t believe that more of the pros haven’t moved here,” he said “This lake is so diverse. One part is almost like a Florida lake, shallow and filled with weeds. Other parts have heavy cover. And others have the deep, rocky structure smallmouths like.
“You can come out here and have a great mixed bag in one day.”
On a recent rainy morning, Schwenkbeck chose to concentrate on smallmouth bass on the north part of the lake. He launched his boat in Plattsburgh, then motored over to Vermont waters.
The first stop? A buoy that marked a rock hump.
“Flip your drop-shot right next to that buoy,” he said. “There’s always a fish there.”
I did and felt the thump of a big smallmouth. The fish pulled hard and then made an abrupt turn and came off. But there were others to be caught.
Schwenkbeck and I landed and released eight smallmouths before it was time to move on. And so it went. Fishing dropoffs, flow-throughs and humps, we caught and released 29 smallmouths, many of them 2 pounds or bigger.
An outstanding day? Nah, just average, according to Schwenkbeck.
“This time of the year, you’d better think smallmouth bass at this lake,” he said. “When the water starts to cool, the smallmouths will move shallow and really put on the feed bag.
“We’ll catch them on topwater lures like Zara Spooks and poppers. That’s when it can really get fun.”